The Magic History of the Tamale + 31 Years of Masa Dreams

Tamale is a traditional Mexican dish made of masa or dough which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper

“Hot tamales, and they’re red hot, and she got ‘em for sale.” 

Although this song has a double meaning it definitely alludes to the women selling tamales who “got two for a nickel, got four for a dime” from a cart on the busy streets of major cities in the Americas. 

From Blind Blake to Eric Clapton to Kanye West to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, countless musicians have crooned about one of the world’s most versatile foods. Even the child entertainers The Wiggles wrote a song called Hot Tamale though it was later changed to Hot Potato

No matter your musical taste, the world of tamales has something to please your palate. From pork to potato-filled, these tightly wrapped taste sensations will make you smile.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of the tamale

The history of tamales is long and storied, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Tamales were first mentioned in Aztec texts and they were also mentioned in the journals of Spanish conquistadors. Tamales were a favorite food of the Aztecs and Mayans and they were often eaten as a portable meal while traveling. The Aztecs would wrap tamales in corn husks and the Mayans would wrap them in banana leaves.

Tamales came to the United States with the Mexican immigrants who brought their traditional recipes. Tamales became especially popular in the American Southwest where the climate is similar to that of Mexico. Today, tamales are enjoyed by people all over the world and they come in a variety of flavors and styles.

Women made tamales and the painstaking process was part of their daily routines and important religious traditions. Tamales were originally cooked over hot ashes in a buried fire. Later, when Spanish conquistadors brought pots and pans women started steaming the corn-wrapped packages. The Spanish also introduced more flavors adding meat and lard to the vegetable delights.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legends surrounding the tamale

The history of tamales is surrounded by mystery perhaps because the delicacies are hidden in inedible corn husks or because they are regularly mentioned in religious stories passed down through generations. 

One important tamale legend dates back thousands of years and features Tzitzimitl, the grandmother of the ancient god Chicomexóchitl. She was said to sacrifice her grandson and use his meat to make the first twenty tamales.

The tamale is also described in the Popul Vul, the Mayan’s major mythological document which says that humans acquired their lasting form from corn.  The legends continued over the years. 

Tamales were often offered to the gods during religious ceremonies. Spanish missionaries incorporated these native traditions to spread Catholicism in Mexico. Where tamales had been used in pagan rituals of the past they soon became associated with Christan holidays as explorers spread their ideas and religion. 

Even today, some mystery remains around tamales. Some believe there is a curse on whoever eats the tamale that sticks to the pot. But if you cook them correctly there should be no tamales stuck at all!

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Symbolism of tamales

What is the significance of the tamale as a food symbol? Corn tamales were commonly sent with hunters, travelers, and soldiers on their journeys to provide them with sustenance and luck and they were commonly chosen as the feast for spiritual and community gatherings. It is thought that the Aztecs used the word tamalli to wrap everything around their bodies.

It is now a world-famous dish with a long and fascinating history that has spread beyond continents and cultures. They are still popular in many Latin American countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia where they were created.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a Tamale?

So what exactly is a tamale? Tamales are made of masa which is ground corn moistened with water. The masa is wrapped in whatever leaves are available such as corn husks, banana leaves, or even tree bark.

The wrapping gives the tamale its name as it comes from the word tamalli, the Náhuatl word meaning wrapped. Inside the tender masa is a filling of tender meats, aromatic spices, and carefully chopped vegetables. There are as many tamale-filling flavors as there are families who make them as each cook adds her own twist.

Pork tamales with red chilis are one of the most well-known varieties but fillings like shredded chicken, black beans, and beef are also popular. Imagination is the key; there are even turkey tamales!

The tamale has come a long way since the early Aztecs ate them at war. With the addition of flavorful fats and meats like lard and pork butt the flavor of the tamale has skyrocketed. 

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tamales in America

So how did tamales cross the border into the United States? One historian believes that Mexican migrants brought tamales to Mississippi when they came to pick cotton in the early 1900s.  Another historian writes that tamales hitched a ride with U.S. soldiers returning from the US-Mexican War in 1848.

Everyone agrees that by the 1870s in Los Angeles, tamales were plentiful on street carts. In fact, they were considered such a nuisance that officials tried to ban them. The story was the same in San Antonio, Texas.

In Mississippi, tamales became a hallmark of African American food even inspiring jazz songs. These days, the tamale bends so many ingredients and ways of life. History professor Monica Ketchum says, “The modern tamale is a blending of cultures.”

It also brings together families and is a wonderful reminder of the past. Because of the labor-intensive method of making tamales, they are no longer a daily or weekly treat but are more often made for special occasions like the  Day of the Dead, Christmas, and New Year’s. 

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to make tamales at home 

No matter what kind of tamales you make know that it can be a long process. For instance, the Oaxacan style includes 120 specific steps! The ratio of masa to filling is of utmost importance. To make excellent tamales you want to be able to taste the succulent fillings not just the dough. A 50/50 ratio is best.

Tamale dough

Depending on where you live, you can often find masa in stores or you can always make your own. When mixed into dough, masa has a custardy texture. The corn dough is mixed with spices and lard and your goal is to create the consistency of peanut butter with nothing sticking to the sides of the bowl. When the dough is no longer sticky, you’re ready to go!

While you knead the dough, have the corn husks soaking in water. Trimming the husks is important for properly sized tamales. About five inches is a good length. Next, place two tablespoons of masa on each corn husk and spread it out with a spatula or putty knife.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Popular tamale fillings

When it comes to the pork filling, experts recommend using your filling when it’s cold placing it in a line down the middle of the husk so it doesn’t run to the edges during cooking. Whether you fill your tamale with tender beef, green chiles, potatoes, and garlic, or shredded chicken, corn kernels, and red sauce, the combinations are as endless as your imagination.

For pork with red chile sauce, use pork butt or shoulder as well as spices like oregano and cumin, topped with a spicy red chile sauce. Another popular filling is black beans and cheese.

31 Years of Masa Dreams

The Indio International Tamale Festival taking place every December (31st annual; December 2-3, 2023) is the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to the steamed savory treat. Visitors will see over 300 tamale vendors as well as live entertainment, interactive art spaces, beer gardens, craft stalls, and, of course, the largest-ever tamale. There is also a competition for the best-tasting tamale.

Other bites available at the event include tacos, nachos, carne asada fries, funnel cake, ice cream, and kettle corn. The festival is also known for its carnival rides and—since last year—the World’s Biggest Bounce House for kids and adults alike.

Food Network ranked the Indio International Tamale Festival in the top 10 All-American Food Festivals in the nation. The festival is a special occasion that kicks off the holiday season bringing the entire community together.

More than 300 vendors will be featured plus a tamale eating contest, five stages of live entertainment, and wine and beer gardens. Attendees will be able to sample a wide variety of tamales from traditional recipes to vegan and vegetarian options.

Admission is free.

Worth Pondering…

Do you want to make a tamale with peanut butter and jelly?  Go Ahead!  Somebody will eat it.

—Bobby Flay, celebrity chef, restaurateur

California’s Timeless Getaway: Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley

This desert escape never goes out of style

Before you even finish this sentence, I’m guessing you can name the number one reason why everyone loves Palm Springs.

The weather! That’s right, Palm Springs averages 350 sunny days per year; its temperate winter climate complements the sunlight to keep you pleasantly warm. The forecast calls for fun, so explore all that Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley have to offer…

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled between the mesmerizing San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park on either side, the Coachella Valley is like no other place on earth. Some might even say it’s magical. Health-seekers, adventurers, artists, and more have flocked here since the early 1900s in search of inspiration, solitude, and serenity. Here, there’s room to breathe and just be, frolicking among the palm oases and hidden waterfalls beneath sun-kissed skies.

The nine cities in the Coachella Valley—Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella—have distinct histories and personalities. Visit the infamous San Andreas Fault and its twisted desert canyons.

Coachella Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soak in the healing hot mineral springs, some of the purest in the world. Tee off at a championship golf course where the likes of Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods have played. Or simply bask in the sunshine. Regardless of where your Coachella Valley journey begins, you’re guaranteed to experience that same magic in the air that keeps snowbirds coming back, time and time again.

Related: Out and About In Southern California

Palm Springs

The desert cities, especially Palm Springs, are particularly well-suited for the outdoor lifestyle that has become requisite within the past year with popular brunch spots along the palm-tree-lined main drag offering sprawling shaded patios perfect for people watching and sipping mimosas.

Palm Springs has been a hideaway for Angelenos since the Rat Pack days and it’s no wonder. This colorful, chic desert escape offers everything you need to unwind and it’s less than a two-hour journey from the city center of L.A.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main draw for snowbirds is the year-round sunshine, but modern art and architecture buffs are attracted to the works of the architects who put their mark on the town including Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and William Krisel. Frey designed Tramway Gas Station, now the Palm Springs Visitor Center. Given its residents’ penchant for art and design, the area is also home to some of the state’s best vintage shops.

The beautiful San Jacinto Mountains are the backdrop to Palm Springs. You can visit the top of the San Jacinto Mountain via The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It travels up over 2.5 miles along the breathtaking cliffs of Chino Canyon. The weather is about 30 degrees cooler so you can go from warm to cool weather in a 10-minute tram ride. You can go from t-shirt, to coat, back to swimsuit in a fall afternoon. Only in Palm Springs!

Related: The Amazing Story of Palms to Pines Scenic Byway

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a hike at one of the convenient trails located near the heart of town. Andreas Canyon is a cradle of cultural finds, showcasing irrigation and artistic achievements of the Cahuilla indigenous people. It’s one of the three canyons in Indian Canyons and offers beautiful views meandering along a natural creek.

For a more challenging hike, consider the trailhead tucked fashionably behind the Palm Springs Art Museum. While you’re there, visit one of the many fascinating design and architecture attractions that make the city famous.

Your hike continues from manmade wonders to natural spectacles. The waterfalls of Tahquitz Canyon are truly astounding, flanked by lush greenery and picturesque wildlife. The crisp water rushing past you tumbles 60 feet from apex to completion.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Will you be in town Thursday night? If not, rearrange those plans! VillageFest rocks Palm Canyon Drive every week with a dazzling array of delightful fare. Fall hours are 6–10 pm. Nosh on finger foods from area restaurants, gaze at visionary pieces by local artists and shop to the max at a bevy of business stands. The only thing missing is you!

Related: Desert Star: Palm Springs

Desert Hot Springs

Located in Coachella Valley, Desert Hot Springs is known internationally for its vast underground aquifers of pure cold water and soothing natural hot mineral water. Situated high overlooking the Palm Springs area, the hotels and spas are known for natural, healing, hot mineral waters.

Desert Hot Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only can you soak in the water; you can drink it too. That’s because the underground cold water springs are just as pure as the hot water springs. Think of it as hot and cold running water. Instead of turning a faucet, though, the water is pumped directly out of the earth.

Hot or cold, the mineral water is unique. It has no smell, unlike lots of other mineral waters. It’s crystal clear too, never discolored like many other waters.

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Sand to Snow National Monument, outdoor enthusiasts will find creosote-strewn hillsides at Mission Creek Preserve or can opt for a hike into the diverse Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. Once a Native American village and later a cattle ranch, this preserve is a serene oasis around a natural spring generated by snowmelt from the surrounding mountains. Big Morongo attracts all manner of birds and animals to riparian woodland filled with cottonwoods and willows.

For a slice of history, Cabot’s Pueblo Museum is a marvel of engineering and design made from recycled desert materials. The home was built beginning in 1941. The Hopi-inspired building is hand-made and created from reclaimed and found materials from throughout the Coachella Valley. The Pueblo has four stories, is 5,000 square feet, and includes 35 rooms, 150 windows, 30 rooflines, and 65 doors.

Related: Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis

Palm Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Desert

Situated in the heart of Coachella Valley, Palm Desert has metamorphosed from a sandy cove at the foot of the Santa Rosas into a sprawling shopping, entertainment, and recreation mecca.

Catch a show at the McCallum Theatre, a state-of-the-art performance venue that has hosted some of the world’s top entertainers and touring Broadway acts. Feed a giraffe at the wonderfully wild Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, ranked one of the top zoos in the country.

Let inspiration strike while exploring public art along the city’s famed shopping district, El Paseo. Kick it into high gear on the Bump and Grind Trail (the 1,000-foot elevation gain pays off in breathtaking panoramic views) or play a round on an award-winning golf course.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most unique places in the Coachella Valley is the Coachella Valley Preserve. The 17,000-acre site has 25 miles of hiking trails and several palm oases including the biggie: the Thousand Palm Oasis. These stay full of water thanks to water seeping out of the San Andreas Fault. The hike from the visitor center to the McCallum Pond at the Thousand Palms Oasis is a fairly easy one, mostly flat, and about a mile.

Cathedral City

Though home to its fair share of lush country clubs and exceptional hotels, Cathedral City shines as a haven for the arts. Thanks to a recent Public Arts Initiative, visitors can discover several works on display throughout the city including the whimsical, mosaic-tiled Fountain of Lifestatue that proudly claims the heart of downtown. Feel free to splash around in the cooling waters … we won’t judge.

Related: Good for What Ages You: Palm Springs

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get to know local talent by attending a gallery opening on Perez Road, the city’s art and design district, or hunt for one-of-a-kind treasures and vintage furniture finds in the district’s eclectic warehouse-style shops.

Rancho Mirage

A luxurious lifestyle meets a playful landscape in Rancho Mirage. Several past U.S. Presidents, including Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, have unplugged here, finding peace amid the palm trees and earning the city the nickname “playground of presidents.” 

Families can shop, dine, and catch a flick all in the same day at Greater Palm Springs’ only waterfront shopping and entertainment hub, The River.

Stroll the historic 200-acre estate at Sunnylands Gardens and marvel at the 70-some odd species of arid-adapted plants suited to the desertscape or wander labyrinths and gaze in reflecting pools.

La Quinta

This “gem in the desert” embraces the outdoors and the arts. Spend the day romanticizing and wandering through Old Town, La Quinta’s main street with cobblestone sidewalks, whitewashed adobe walls, and bougainvillea galore. The quaint thoroughfare provides the perfect storybook-like setting for an afternoon of shopping and alfresco dining.

Related: Top 10 States with the Best Winter Weather

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, Desert Hot Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sip on a seasonal IPA at La Quinta Brewing Company (their outdoor patio is great for people-watching). Browse local artists’ wares, ranging from paintings to ceramics to jewelry during Art on Main Street, held on select Saturdays throughout the year. Shop for fresh fare and flowers at the Old Town Farmers Market.

Experience art and learn a new skill at Old Town Artisan Studios. Or rent a beach cruiser through Old Town Peddler to explore more of the surrounding cottage-filled neighborhoods that make up La Quinta Cove where hikers enjoy easy access to trails that traverse beautiful desert mountains and canyons.

Shield’s Date Garden, Indio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indio

Dubbed the City of Festivals, Indio has become a favorite destination for foodies and music lovers attracting nearly 1.4 million people each year for its multiple mainstream events including the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (April 15-17 and 22-24, 2022) and Stagecoach Country Music Festival (April 29-May 1, 2022).

Tamale Festival © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For an authentic taste of the valley, don’t miss the Indio International Tamale Festival (29th annual; December 4-5, 2021) where dozens of homemade tamales with creative flavors (hello pumpkin, vegan green chile, and chocolate cherry!) delight.

And of course, there’s the date shake. Many local eateries serve up creamy, ice-cold shakes made with the Coachella Valley’s favorite fruit—our preferred way to chill on a warm desert day. Sip yours while strolling through the date groves and citrus trees at Shields Date Garden & Café, an Indio mainstay since 1924.

Coachella

Color comes alive in the City of Eternal Sunshine whose rich Hispanic heritage shines through in community events like Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and authentic Mexican cuisine you won’t find anywhere else in Coachella Valley. Choices range from Jalisco, a landmark Coachella restaurant that has been a favorite of many since 1980 to El Tranvia, owned by Oscar Ventura, whose grandparents once sold tacos out of a pushcart in their native Zamora, Mexico.

Related: 10 RV Parks in the Southwest that Snowbirds Love

It is said that the tacos here will change your life. Take a trip down the street and you’ll find Las Tres Conchitas, Coachella’s very first bakery where you can purchase authentic Mexican sweet bread and baked goods. 

Shield’s Date Garden, Indio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Die-hard foodies can even book an agri-tour to get an up-close look at the fields of brightly hued fruits and vegetables that surround the city. Learn how growers cultivate their crops, many of which end up on your plate at some of the area’s finest restaurants.

Indian Waters RV Park, Indio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Equally colorful—and perhaps one of the area’s best-kept secrets—is the Coachella Walls, beautiful murals painted by local artists throughout downtown that celebrate the city’s people and history. Stroll the historic sidewalks with a self-guided tour and admire their artistry.

Worth Pondering…

You don’t go to Palm Springs in the summer unless you’re building a golf course.

—Arnold Palmer